BOOK REVIEW: QB -My Life Behind the Spiral by Steve Young with Jeff Benedict

As most of you know by now, I tend to see the positive aspects of adversity, especially when it comes to sports. All athletes will, at some point in their careers, will confront adversity.

It might be a serious injury that they have to come back from. Perhaps they get cut during a tryout. Maybe the kid makes a mistake in judgment and now has to pay the price in terms of sitting out a bunch of games or even an entire season.

Trust me. The real measure of a kid’s heart and determination is how much they respond to adversity.

Which takes me to NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young.

His long-awaited autobiography officially publishes on October 11th, and it’s quite a story. (Full disclaimer: I served as the editor on the book, and it was a joy.)

Steve was, like so many others, a gifted athlete. Growing up in Greenwich, CT, he was a star in football, basketball, and baseball. He was such a gifted runner in football that his HS coach decided to make him into an option quarterback, so he didn’t pass very often in games. Rather, he ran for score after score.

Recruited primarily by UNC and BYU (he’s a long-time descendant of Brigham Young, plus Steve’s Dad, Grit, played football at BYU), Young ultimately decided on BYU. Being All-State in Connecticut, he felt pretty good about making him name in Provo. But adversity slapped him right in the face.

At his first practice as a freshman, he was stunned to see he was listed as 8th string on the depth chart. He was so low on the chart that not only would he not make the travel team for away games, but he wouldn’t even suit up for home games. Discouraged beyond belief, Steve never unpacked his suitcase for the fall semester. He called his Dad and told him he wanted to quit and come home.

Grit Young replied steadily: “Steve, you can quit….but you can’t come home. We believe in this family that you have to complete what you start.”

This was not the reply, of course, that Steve wanted to hear.

What happened next? Steve decided to confront his adversity and spent the next 4 months working out by himself, over the winter, in the BYU football facility. He just threw pass after pass, until he had thrown close to 10,000 passes. After a while, one of the offensive coaches spotted Steve and his constant practice. The coach spoke to LaVell Edwards, the head coach, and told him how impressed he was with this kid. Edwards was surprised; after all, he assumed that Steve Young would end up as a defensive back, never a quarterback.

But by the end of the spring football season, Young had leapfrogged all the way to being the second string QB behind Jim McMahon.

Let me stop here. The book is honest, forthright, and full of ups and downs but told in such a way that you can’t help but root for Steve. Jeff Benedict from Sports Illustrated who helped Steve write the book did a magnificent job.

In the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing more about Steve’s book as he makes the round of publicity. It’s a great read for any football fan. I would heartily suggest you go to Amazon now and pre-order a copy. I just have a hunch this book is going to sell out quickly.

 

ABUSIVE SPORTS PARENTS: Why Are So Many HS Coaches Quitting? A National Epidemic

We have known for some years now that sports parents have become an increasing issue for HS coaches as Moms and Dads often intervene or meddle with the coaches upon behalf of their youngster. Coaches would often remark to each other that the “best kids to coach were those who were orphans.

But the problem with meddling parents has only escalated. And what is happening is that more and more coaches are simply, well, quitting. They just don’t want to deal with this issue anymore. As one long-time athletic director observed recently, “it used to be that a HS coach would last at the school for a career….but these days, the average stay is about 4-5 years, tops.”

According to a stunning survey of 227 HS coaches that was conducted by a local newspaper in Syracuse, NY, (Syracuse.com), the reason why coaches are quitting is simple:

The coaches get tired of dealing with the parents….”

That’s right. Coaches leave because of the parents…and unfortunately, many times, it’s the good coaches who leave.

There are reports from all over – not just Syracuse  —  that the friction between parents and their kid’s HS coaches has only gotten worse. And that’s not good.

You know what I’m talking about. We live in a time where sports parents have invested SO much of their time, energy, and money in their kid’s athletic career that when a youngster plays for a coach who doesn’t happen to share the parent’s opinion of how good their kid is, well, the parent thinks that they have every right to confront the coach and demand more playing time…or to make their kid All-League…or to make them a starter….or whatever the parent feels their kid is entitled to.

The problem is at a point where something needs to be done. In fact, when I do speaking events to local communities, the number one complaint from coaches and athletic directors continues to be the “out of control parents who meddle.”

We clearly need to do something to stop this interference by parents. … so what can we do?

FINDING WAYS TO STOP THE MEDDLING

On today’s radio show, we had a number of callers who all shared this growing concern. It was pointed out that, traditionally, at pre-season meetings, the HS AD often makes a statement to all attendees “to please let the coaches and leave them alone to do their job.” Parents hear this, but clearly the warning goes in ear and out the other. Too many parents either feel that the rules don’t apply to them or that, somehow, they are entitled to talk to the coach when it involves their kid.

In other words, this approach doesn’t have much of a lasting impact.

One caller this AM – Jack from New Jersey – said he had coached at the HS level for 35 years, and he had some specific suggestions that worked for him to counteract angry parents. Specifically:

Keep your roster of players deliberately small. 

His point was that if you kept just the bare minimum of kids on the team, then it was much easier to get them all playing time in the games. If you have a larger roster, then all those at the end of the bench (including their parents) are going to grouse and complain about not enough playing time.

Make sure all your kids play at least a little each game.

Not all the kids can play equally or a lot in each game, but as the coach, if you get every kid into the game – again, having a small roster helps — than every kid is going to feel that they contributed in some way.

Have each kid and their parents sign a contract at the beginning of the season.

Jack had every youngster on the varsity come into his office before the season with their parents, and Jack would outline the expectations for that kid, and then would also have to sign a contract that made clear that 1) the parents would not at any time during the season talk to the coach about their kid’s playing time, and 2) that they would never bring up any other player’s name in their conversation.

Did such an approach work? Yes, Jack says that for the most part it did work.

Jack went onto agree with a statement that was made earlier in the show – that a generation ago, HS varsity coaches were seen as the top of the pyramid in sports in town. But these days, with the advent of travel programs, it’s the travel coaches who now have ascended to the top of the pyramid and they seem to have much more clout with the athletes and parents than the HS coaches do.

Routinely these days, a talented player will inform their HS coach that “my travel team coach thinks I should play this position — not the one you want me to play” and make other such demands. HS coaches are often lost as to how to make their players abide by their wishes, not the travel coach’s.

Bottom line? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any clear way to correct this issue. And until a real solution is found, HS coaches will continue to come and go on a fairly regular basis.

What a shame.

 

MORE ON THE IMPORTANCE OF ADVERSITY: Every Athlete Will Encounter It – and What You Need to Say

Let me ask you this.

What have you have learned, or your kids have learned, from dealing with adversity in sports.

And along those lines, when your youngster runs into a setback, how do you – as an adult – let them handle this important life lesson?

In my mind, when it comes to kids in sports – and learning life lessons – there are very moments in one’s life that can potentially have as much impact as having to confront – and deal with —  and then hopefully, overcome adversity.

And yes, I feel that strongly about the positive long-range effects of adversity.

You talk to any top professional athlete – even the most gifted and most accomplished — about the power of adversity in their lives, and each and every one of them will tell you about an unexpected setback that they have to overcome. It’s a universal common denominator.

You all know about Michael Jordan being cut from his HS varsity team as a sophomore. Looking back, and with all that Michael Jordan has accomplished in his basketball career, that seems impossible. But it did happen. He wasn’t good enough to make the team as a soph.

But the key takeaway was the way in which he handled the disappointment. Rather than fume and complain, Jordan lived with the pain and then went to the head coach and simply asked him what Jordan needed to work on in order to make the team the following year. To this credit, the coach explained how Michael needed to improve his game. And that blue print sparked Jordan to work his tail off on the weaker parts of his game so that, next year, he would make the team. By the time he was a senior, he was considered one of the premier players in North Carolina.

Then there’s NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young. After having a stellar career in HS in Greenwich, CT, he was recruited to play quarterback at BYU. But Young was stunned and dismayed when, as he got to his first practice, he saw his name was listed as 8th string on the depth chart. He was so low on the depth chart that not only did he not travel for away games, he didn’t dress in uniform for home games either.

Discouraged and upset, Steve called his Dad back home, and said he wanted to quit and come home. Steve’s Dad listened quietly, and finally said, “Steve, you can certainly quit the team, if you want…..but you can’t come home. I just won’t allow that.”

That sent a wake-up call to Steve. Adversity was calling. Rather than go home, he decided to devote the rest of the football season and the entire winter to throwing 10,000 spirals in the BYU football facility in order to improve his game. He worked and worked so much that the coaching staff finally began to take notice. It suddenly dawned on them that perhaps they had misjudged Steve’s talents. Sure enough, by the time he was a senior, he finished runner-up in the Heisman Trophy race.

Again. Steve’s ascent to stardom was kickstarted because of adversity staring him in the face.

THE ONGOING ADVERSITY FACED BY DANNY WOODHEAD

Last week, in The Player’s Tribune, which is Derek Jeter’s online platform for top athletes. Danny Woodhead of the San Diego Chargers – you might recall Danny also played for the Jets and the Patriots – did a first-person letter to himself  — writing to himself when he was 18 about all the adversity he was going to face in his football life.

It was an interesting perspective. Danny is now around 30, and his reflections are quite moving and powerful.

Mind you, Danny has now played in the NFL for close to a decade, so on the surface, he’s a success story. But when he was 18 and growing up in Nebraska where they grow football players real big– Dan was only  5-7 and 175 pounds. But he did have great speed and fierce determination.

And sure enough, he became a great HS football player. He even broke the state rushing record in Nebraska. Pretty impressive for a guy who was relatively small.

When he got to be a senior in HS, the University of Nebraska – Danny’s beloved University of Nebraska – basically told him he was too small to play at the D-1 level. No scholarship offer. But they offered him a chance to walk-on as a kick returner. But that’s about it. No guarantees.

That was the first slap in Danny’s face in terms of football adversity.

Not having any other D-I offers, Woodhead  went to Chadron State – a Div-II school  of 3,000 students – where he starred as a running back and along the way,  he broke the NCAA rushing record. But despite that remarkable college career, he was bypassed by the NFL scouts…no one invited him to the scouting combine.

Not surprisingly, Danny was undrafted. But the NY Jets did call him and asked if he would like to sign as an undrafted free agent. Thrilled he does so. But when he gets to Jets’ camp, he tears his ACL. Out for the season.

Then the second year, having recovered from his knee injury, he makes the Jets in training camp. But as the season starts, he’s let go.

You get the idea….no scholarship. Too small. Not drafted. Get hurts. Come back and then gets cut. In short, adversity topped with more adversity.

And yet….there’s a happy ending in all of this. Danny leans heavily on his wife, his family, and of course his belief in God and in himself.

When he and his wife get back to Omaha after being cut by the Jets, he gets a call from the New England Patriots. Overjoyed, Danny signs. And ends up being a major contributor on their Super Bowl team.  Adversity turns into amazing.

Now, we know…there are hundreds, even thousands of stories of athletes from all over in different sports who have had to confront adversity. And of course, not all of them have the same kind of happy ending that Danny Woodhead had.

But the real takeaway here is learning how to come to grips with adversity….to deal with the harsh reality of sports…and most importantly, if being a top competitor is important to your son or daughter, how do they react to that setback?

As a parent, what do you say to your youngster if they tried out for the travel team and didn’t make it…

Or if they suffered an injury that means they can’t play that season?

Or if the coach decided on starting another kid over your youngster?

What do you say? And more importantly, how did your athlete react?

 

When your youngster comes home upset, disappointed, and in tears, what do you say to them?

Look, every kid is different, and every situation is different. But here are some thoughts I’d like to pass along whenever your kid runs into adversity:

 

O First, give them some space to let the hurt hurt….let it fester in them for a day or two. Besides, there’s not much you can do at this point except to give them a hug.

O But after a day or two….that’s when you want to reach out to them, in a quiet moment, and let them talk…let them open up to you. Yes, there may be tears involved….but you need to let youngster know that there are important life lessons to be learned from this setback.

O Make it clear to them that if this activity is truly meaningful to them, then it’s going to be up to them to figure out what went wrong, and most importantly, how they are going to commit to make their goals come true.

No, not every dream will come true….but at least your youngster will learn about life…that one can’t take success for granted….that in the long run, success – in sports and in other avenues of life —  involves a lot of hard work and effort.

And if they do ultimately succeed and prevail, well, that victory is going to taste that much better.

For me, that’s one of the most important legacies sports can teach one’s kid.

GAME OFFICIALS: Why It’s Essential to Keep Their Work in Mind

Respect for Officials

By Doug Abrams

Late last month, The Oklahoman carried a thoughtful op-ed article by Mike Whaley, the Director of Officials for the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association. The OSSAA is the membership organization that supervises and regulates the state’s interscholastic sports programs.

With the fall season approaching, Whaley reminded coaches, parents, and players to respect the referees and umpires who help assure the smooth operation of high school and middle school games. “As much as your team wants to win,” he wrote, “officials want to get the calls right. Make no mistake, officials miss calls, . . . but the vast majority of them I know approach every contest in an effort to work the ‘perfect game’”.

“In the world of secondary sports,” Whaley concluded, “athletics is education-based — the core value to the student-athlete is in the process not the outcome.”

Essential Cogs In the Machinery

Mike Whaley is right to urge respect for referees and umpires. Officials do sometimes miss calls because they, like the parents and coaches and players, are not professionals in the sport. Everyone makes mistakes. But for every missed call, officials make dozens of correct calls that only appear wrong to parents and coaches who do not understand the rules, do not see the action as closely as they think they do, or cannot overcome partisanship.

Responsibility brings accountability, so officials should expect periodic reviews by league authorities. But perfection cannot be the standard or the expectation. Leagues will be entitled to perfect referees when the players become perfect players, the coaches become perfect coaches, and the parents become perfect parents. Until that day of universal perfection dawns, fallible officials are a part of youth league and interscholastic sports.

As a youth hockey coach, I learned early that officials deserve respect because, like parents and coaches, they are essential cogs in the complex machinery that enables the young athletes to play. But I also sense that in many communities, persistent disrespect can jeopardize player safety by inducing many experienced referees and umpires to retire prematurely, worn down by the verbal and sometimes physical abuse they face during games.

The rest of this column discusses the sometimes hidden link between officials’ premature retirements and heightened risks to player safety, especially in contact and collision sports.

Premature Retirements

Earlier this year, the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer published an article by Tim Stevens, “Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs.” The article led with this troublesome forecast: “Irate high school sports fans . . . are heaping so much abuse on referees that it is becoming hard for North Carolina and other states to recruit new officials. . . .”

The media regularly reports about chronic referee shortages, not only in school sports, but also in many youth leagues from coast to coast. Among the officials I have known, most stepped forward not primarily for the relatively modest stipends they receive, but to remain active in the game while serving youth and their families. Most officials are family men and women with personal obligations and reputations. Most can find other constructive ways to participate in community life, free from persistent abuse dished out by other adults, often within sight and earshot of the officials’ own families.

Safety Risks

Why the link between chronic referee shortages and player safety? “To be effective for promoting safety,” says a recent medical study, a youth sport’s rules “must be enforced rigorously and consistently by referees and leagues.” Parents and coaches assume important enforcement roles, but referees are the primary enforcers once the game starts. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports consensus among sports medicine professionals that “[o]fficials controlling the physicality of the game . . . can . . . play significant roles in reducing contact injuries.”

This essential control suffers when so many veteran officials quit each year. Many replacement officials are simply not yet ready for the responsibilities cast on them. But for the premature departures of so many veterans, many of the replacements would not yet be on the field.

Because of the competitors’ size and speed, loss of game control seems particularly troublesome in contact and collision sports in high schools and middle schools, the levels that the OSSAA and other state activities associations supervise.  Most parents and coaches do not cross the line into verbal or physical abuse of officials, and most adults may deplore such abuse. But the majority’s disgust does not diminish the harmful influence of the errant minority who do cross. Leagues often get the quality of officiating that they deserve, and player safety may depend on the outcome.

Sources: Mike Whaley, OSSAA Official: Treat the Refs, Umps Right During This High School Sports Year, The Oklahoman, Aug. 24, 2016; Tim Stevens, Abusive Fans Make It Tougher to Recruit High School Sports Refs, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Mar. 27, 2016; Charles H. Tator et al., Spinal Injuries in Canadian Ice Hockey: An Update to 2005, Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol. 19, p.  451 (2009); Chris G. Kouteres & Andrew J.M. Gregory, Injuries in Youth Soccer, Pediatrics, vol. 125, p. 410 (Feb. 2010).

SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: Where Have We Been….and Where Are We Going?

I’ve known Bob Bigelow for close to two decades as a sports parenting advocate like myself. Back in the mid-1970s, Bob was a 6-8 sharp-shootingAll-Ivy forward at Penn who was so talented that he became a first-round draft choice in the NBA.

After Bob’s playing days came to an end, Bob and I have been trying to help educate sports parents, athletic directors, and coaches about how youth sports has changed dramatically here in the US, and how things are going to continue to change in the years to come. That was the theme of my WFAN show this AM, and right away, one of the sharp callers – Coach Tom from North Arlington, NJ – chimed in and agreed with Bob that unlike 20 years ago, parents have become increasingly sophisticated about the “game” of competitive athletics. That is, that Moms and Dads recognize earlier than ever before that their 8 or 10 year might be blessed with superior athletic talent and drive.

Of course, most of the time, these kids reach their full athletic potential sometime in HS, but that doesn’t stop parents with deep pockets and big dreams for their kid to spend a fortune on travel teams, private coaches, specialized camps, you name it. Parents see this all as a kind of investment – a down payment, if you will – on a kid’s future earnings as a pro.

But as was pointed out on the show, whereas a generation ago talented athletes didn’t start to get recruited until they were juniors or seniors in HS, the timing has all changed now. Because of the internet’s presence and growing social media, college coaches now begin to track promising athletes at much younger ages, dipping down into 9th grade and even middle school. Truth be told, if a youngster is prodigiously tall — say, 6-5 or so – by the time he’s in the 7th or 8th grade, he has most likely heard from college recruiters.

Of course, as Bob and I agree, this is all absurd. Kids change so much during their teenage years that it’s both misleading as well as unfair to a kid to start receiving interest from college coaches before they have really established themselves as bona fide athletes. Yet the NCAA has no rule against this kind of pre-pubescent recruiting, and even though top college coaches decry this kind of recruiting, the fact is that it continues unabated.

Of course, when an 8th grader gets a letter in the mail – even just a form letter – which carries the logo of a top college program, this kind of unexpected feedback only serves to reinforce the parents’ belief that his or her son or daughter is going to become a superstar and make millions one day.

This is just so unfair and misleading to the parents and the kids. And yet, it just feeds into the system.

SOME GOOD NEWS IN PARENTAL BEHAVIOR

Bigelow and I both feel strongly that there has been progress in terms of educating parents on how to behave at their kids’ games. That of course is good news. But as kids start to be recruited at younger and younger ages, that’s become a growing concern. And of course, there are the enticements of numerous travel coaches and private coaches who feed into the process even more, e.g. if your kid wants to become one of the best, he or she needs to have me coach them all year round.

And of course, that’s going to cost real money. How about asking for a guarantee that if my kid plays for your travel team, then Coach, you will guarantee that they’ll get a college scholarship. Of course, nobody will guarantee that, but isn’t that what, in effect, you’re paying for?

Finally, it was pointed out that in a recent study of NFL top draft selections, something like 80-85% of those top football players never specialized in just one sport growing up. Same with NBA star Steph Curry.

In other words, there is clearly some sort of major disconnect between the theory of specializing in just one sport an early age….and which athletes become superstars by the time they finish HS.

It’s food for thought.

COPING WITH ADVERSITY: What’s the Best Way to Give Feedback to Young Athletes (…and their Parents)?

One of the basic fundamentals that all coaches embrace – whether at the youth, travel, or HS level – is that a coach has to give feedback to one’s athletes.

Problem is, it’s rare for a coach to be trained at any level on how to do this. In short, it’s just sort of “assumed” that coaches know how to do this. But anyone who has had a youngster play for a bunch of different coaches know that giving feedback is rarely standard or universal in nature.

A generation ago, coaches were considerably more gruff and tough in their demeanor. That doesn’t mean they were mean or sarcastic; it just means that it was hard to please them. I can recall vividly how difficult it was to get my HS football coaches to get them to smile just a little bit on a well-executed block or tackle. I remember how I could live for a full week on cloud nine if I ever got a pat on the back from the head football coach for a job well done.

But of course, times change. These days, it seems the tables have turned dramatically, almost 180 degrees, to the point where every coach lavishes constant praise on the athletes, and does so regardless of youth, travel, or HS level. Every kid, it seems, is “making tremendous progress” or “is just doing great” or “I couldn’t be happier with their skill level.”

But of course, if every kid on the team is receiving this kind of glowing feedback, how is it that some kids end up playing a lot whereas others are on the bench?

That’s a real dilemma. And invariably, it leads parents to wonder what’s going on. As in, “if my kid so good, why is he not starting?”

Good question. And most coaches can’t answer that.

Lost in this shuffle is the element of adversity. The vast majority of parents instinctively tend to shield their kids from adversity – to keep them protected from the cold, cruel world. But in the world of sports, such protection isn’t always the right thing. And it doesn’t help when the coach keeps heaping glowing praise on the kid.

Adversity is a major part of ANY athlete’s experience. Ask any top pro or college star and they were all tell you that they faced some sort of adversity in their career that they had to overcome. It’s just the way it is in sports.

A NEW WAY TO PROVIDE FEEDBACK?

Ian Goldberg, who has two young daughters who play softball and soccer, started to think about the feedback process. He was so moved by the lack of real and meaningful feedback at the youth level that he developed an online program (which is free) to aid and assistant youth coaches in giving real feedback to kids.

In effect, it’s similar to a report card from school. But the key is that, depending on the sport and the athlete’s age, the coach provide true observations on a kid’s progress, i.e. needs to learn how to control the  soccer ball effectively with both feet, needs to see the entire field better in terms of passing, etc. By pinpointing both the strengths as well as weaknesses, the youngster gets a much better feel as to what they need to work on.

Ian also points out that for travel team tryouts, it would be extremely helpful if the coaches posted precise criteria on their website as well. Just saying “We’re going to select the best athletes from the kids who try out” doesn’t do much to help alleviate the pressure on kids and parents. By being specific as to what they’re looking for can only help.

In any event, if you’d like to find out more, check out iSport360.com. Be sure to look for the app to get you going on your critiques.

SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY: Today’s Appearance on The NFL Network

Just FYI…..many of you know me for my work in the field of sports parenting. But long before I became involved in this area, I did my undergraduate and graduate work in psychology. And I specialized in sports psychology which, back when I was in college, was pretty much an unknown and uncharted territory. It’s only in the last couple of decades that sports psychology has become accepted by the world of professional and collegiate sports. Before then, the old joke that “anybody who needed to see a sports psychologist ought to have his head examined” was a typical — and unwanted — response from coaches and athletes.

In any event, like most athletes, I always found that the mental side of the game to be fascinating. Sure, you had to have the God-given physical skills to play at the collegiate or professional level, but the truth is, you reach a point where in order to succeed and win, one needs to become more consistent and perhaps a bit better prepared psychologically than one’s opponents. That’s where the mental approach begins to have major priority.

After being a head college baseball coach at Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, NY) for nine years where we had several nationally-ranked teams (NCAA, Div. II), I was then asked to serve as the roving sports psychology coach for the Cleveland Indians. I served with the big league and minor league teams of the Indians in the early 1990s, just as Cleveland was beginning to assert itself as an American League powerhouse. I worked with, and got to know well, a number of the young stars on those teams. And I was elated when Cleveland awarded me with an American League championship ring when the Tribe won the AL pennant in 1995.

These days, I still am called to consult with top athletes who are having some difficulties in terms of performing at a top level, and I’m called by athletes and their agents across a variety of sports. And sometimes, I’m even asked to comment when a kid is struggling. To that end, I thought you might be interested in seeing a short clip of yours truly on The NFL Network this AM discussing the performance issues of Tampa Bay’s highly-touted place-kicker Roberto Aguayo, and what he might want to try to correct his course of action.

See link below:

Rick Wolff on the NFL Network

 

SPORTSMANSHIP: What To Do When Neither Team Tries to Win….

Game-Fixing and Youth Coaching Ethics

By Doug Abrams

Under the headline, “Two Youth Teams Apparently Fixed a Match At a Tournament,” Fox Soccer writer Alex Dowd described a U-18 girls game played on July 28 at the US Youth Soccer National Championships in Frisco, Texas. He reported that the two teams, the Ambassadors FC and the Carlsbad Elite, each needed only a tie to advance to the semifinals as the first- and second-place finishers in their group play bracket. The game ended in a scoreless tie, both teams advanced, and another team was eliminated.

With the help of game video posted online, Dowd described the game: “Essentially they’re just rolling the ball back and forth, not even pretending to compete. With the ignoble 0-0 result in the books, both teams collected the point needed to advance to the semifinals. That certainly looks like match fixing, through and through.”

Headlines and stories in other media outlets were similarly harsh on the two teams. USA TODAY (“Two Youth Teams Accused of Deliberately Tanking After Playing Terrible Soccer Game”) said that “it looked like neither side was trying to score or do much of anything.” GotSoccer (“Controversy Dogs U18 Girls Semifinals at US Youth Soccer National Championships”) described the “somnolent 0-0 draw” and likened the contest to “a morality play in shin pads.”

In statements afterwards, the two head coaches denied match-fixing charges. According to TopDrawSoccer, the Ambassadors’ coach said that “Both teams were through pretty much, so there was nothing to play for. Earlier in the day, there had been 18 people collapsed due to the heat.” His Carlsbad counterpart said that “Playing a low pressure style was in our best interest looking ahead to the semi-final to help preserve our players physically for the next match, having already played two 90 minute games in the extreme heat.”

“Disrespectful to the Game”

US Youth Soccer issued a statement after its National Championship Series Committee met with both teams and conducted a thorough investigation of the evidence presented. The committee found insufficient evidence of collusion, but it determined that the teams were “disrespectful to the game, the competition and US Youth Soccer.” The disrespect had “compromised” the “integrity” of the championship series and its “ideals . . . of fair play and sportsmanship.”

The committee imposed fines and disciplinary action on both teams, and US Youth Soccer said that it would conduct further investigation to determine whether “the actions of the coaches were adverse to the best interests of soccer or US Youth Soccer.”

“Honors Won Without Fair Play”

This column is not about one sport or one national championship series, but about what can happen when temptation rears its head during tournaments in various youth sports at every age and experience level. The coaches may be paid, or they may be volunteers. The games may take place in community youth leagues, travel team play, or interscholastic leagues.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs arising from last month’s soccer game, reports periodically surface of youth coaches who seek tactical advantage from throwing games or manipulating scores in national, state, and local tournaments. These reports not only test youth coaching ethics; they can also threaten the future credibility of the coaches themselves, including coaches with otherwise unblemished records.

Many youth coaches doubtlessly weigh tactics during tournaments, which frequently feature multiple games in a few days, sometimes on only a few hours’ rest. To conserve stamina with the team comfortably ahead, for example, the coach may pace first-stringers or reward substitutes with extra playing time earned during the season.

The ethical compass points in a different direction, however, when the coach deliberately tries to lose a game or otherwise to jockey for advantageous placement in a later round. The line between reasonable pacing and deliberately trying to manipulate outcomes may sometimes be hazy, but coaches cross the line when the players themselves figure out that their leaders are scheming to pull a fast one.

US Youth Soccer is right that in national tournaments and local community play alike, the integrity of sports depends on competitors who try their best to win. Angling to lose or tie disrespects the game by denying players the fruits of athletic competition. The British Association of Coaches points the compass in the right direction: “Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”

‘We Were Embarrassed”

One element evidently absent from reports of the Ambassadors-Carlsbad game – but important to Rick Wolff’s listeners — is player disgust at coaching shenanigans. Reported efforts at match-fixing frequently draw immediate negative reaction from youngsters who know right from wrong. Even where the effort appears initially successful, the coach may lose in the long run because few people respect ethically challenged people for very long.

Players and parents may forgive a coach’s errors of strategy, or the coach’s lack of knowledge about the finer points of the game. But players or parents may find it difficult to forgive sharp practice that soils the values that drive sports and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. Youth coaching depends on credibility, and credibility depends on more than X’s, O’s, and scoreboards.

A few years ago, for example, respect and credibility evaporated quickly in an early round of the Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) High School Hockey League’s A-Division playoffs.  The Westwood High School Warriors led College Jeanne Sauve, 3-2, late in the third period, when Westwood’s coaches schemed to lose the game by pulling their goalie to let the opponents score. The coaches knew that by losing, the Warriors would draw an easier opponent in the upcoming semifinal round and avoid a faceoff against the league’s regular-season champion. With their net empty, the Warriors yielded the tying and winning goals and lost, 4-3.

The Winnipeg Sun reported that many Warriors players left the ice “visibly distraught” because they knew that their coaches had deliberately thrown the game. “It was brutal,” a Warriors forward told the Sun.  “We were embarrassed, and we’re sad we had to put up with it.” I was a youth hockey coach for many years, and I would never have wanted any of my players to feel that way about me.

20/20 Hindsight

Reputation earned over time is the youth coach’s greatest asset. Benjamin Franklin described the impact of even one ethical lapse: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Coaches who cut ethical corners seeking to lose or to manipulate outcomes may find it difficult, if not impossible, to recover their reputations, even if their schools or associations permit them to return to return to the sidelines. The Internet makes the difficulty or impossibility even greater today than ever before. The Ambassadors and Carlsbad coaches attracted national media attention because the game took place during a prominent national championship series. But even in a local weekend or holiday tournament, complaints about a named coach’s ethical lapse may find their way into the local press or blog postings that describe the game itself or parental or player misgivings.

The stain can be permanent, awaiting simple Internet word searches for the coach’s name. Permanence can be a serious consequence for a coach who wishes future coaching assignments or who seeks the respect from youngsters on future teams. Or for a coach whose reputation in the community might be sullied by tanking a game played by children and adolescents.

The prospect of permanently tattered respect and reputation is too great a price to pay for today’s gamble at a tainted outcome.

 

Sources:  Alex Dowd, Two Youth Teams Apparently Fixed a Match At a Tournament, http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2016/07/29/two-youth-teams-apparently-fixed-match-at-tournament.html (July 29, 2016); Charles Curtis, Two Youth Teams Accused of Deliberately Tanking After Playing Terrible Soccer Game, USA TODAY, http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/07/us-youth-soccer-national-championship-tanking-accusations (July 30, 2016); Peter Nolan, Controversy Dogs U18 Girls Semifinals at US Youth Soccer National Championships, http://blogs.gotsoccer.com/?p=17822  (July 30, 2016); Will Parchman, Watch Two Teams Sit On a Match to Advance in a Youth Tournament, http://www.topdrawersoccer.com/the91stminute/2016/07/watch-two-teams-siton-a-match-to-advance-in-a-youth-tournament/ (July 29, 2016); US Youth Soccer Statement on Under-18 Girls Ambassadors vs. Carlsbad Game, http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/us_youth_soccer_statement_on_under-18_girls_ambassadors_vs_carlsbad_game/  (July 30, 2016); Ken Wiebe, Swift Hockey Justice, Winnipeg Sun, Mar. 5, 2011, p. S3.

 

 

ATHLETIC DIRECTORS: When HS Coaches are Fired….

A few weeks ago, the long-time varsity boys basketball coach at Horace Greeley HS in Chappaqua, NY was fired. He’d been the head coach there for 24 years. That’s a long time. And for many of his players, he was beloved.

But the AD at Greeley decided to make a change. And of course, because it’s standard school and state policy pretty much everywhere not to offer comments about why a coaching change was made, there was no official reason or explanation for the coach’s dismissal.  “Just a change in direction” is the usual explanation.

Then about a week or so later, four long-time varsity coaches at Scarsdale HS (Scarsdale, NY) were also informed that their services were no longer needed. One of the coaches, faced with the reality of being let go, decided to resign instead.

Again, lots of outcry from the Scarsdale sports community about the abrupt dismissal: “How could this happen? Our kids LOVED playing for these people? How could the AD make such a radical move and not give any reason?”

IS THERE A BETTER WAY?

And again, as expected, no reasons were given except the standard “this is a personnel issue, and we’re not allowed to discuss it.”

The dismissal of long-time coaches is always charged with emotion. First, it’s a tough decision for the AD who has to make a case to the school board behind closed door to fire the coach. Then, once given the bad news, it’s always difficult for the coach to face the reality that his or her coaching tenure is over at that school. And of course, it’s also very, very tough on the HS athletes as this suddenly changes the landscape in their careers.

There are a lot of unknowns here for the kids:  Who will be the new coach? How will the new coach run things? Most importantly, will the new coach see that I’m talented and good? And of course, the kids’ parents have the same concerns.

But let’s get back to the actual dismissal of the coach. It’s one thing, of course, if the coach didn’t have much of a successful win-loss record. At the varsity level, one of the top priorities is to win. No question. But does priority tallow the coach to play ONLY the team’s top players all the time, and not give other kids’ on the team any playing time?

And what about the coach’s ability to communicate? Is he “old school” and gruff with the kids with his feedback? If a kid comes to him and asks how he or she can get more playing time, does the coach simply tell them straight out: “Look, you’re too slow…or you’re too small….or you’re not as good as other kids on the team” or does the coach sugar coat their response?

My years of experience suggests to me that, in many cases, these two issues are often at the heart of these coaching changes: a lack of playing time for all kids, and the coach doesn’t communicate well. But the purpose of this column is to first focus on what’s the right way to announce to the community that a coach isn’t being re-hired.

Remember, HS coaches do not just have tenure like teachers. They are hired on a year-to-year basis, and they all know that. But if a coach has been on staff for a number of years, it becomes apparent that he or she has become a coaching fixture in that school. That’s one reason why it’s so jarring when it’s decided that they have been let go.

My question is….is there a better way to make these kinds of sudden coaching changes? Does the AD have any kind of responsibility to say more to the general community  than “we just felt the program needed to go in a different direction?”

Or is that indeed enough?

Legal concerns aside, can the AD say in his explanation that each year, I sit down with the coach and give him or her an objective performance appraisal on what they need to improve….and unfortunately, in this case, the coach really didn’t make any significant progress.

Can they at least say that? Do you know whether your school’s AD even does annual performance reviews with his staff of varsity coaches? And if they do, can parents or athletes see that standard performance review sheet that is filled out? That, to me, would be interesting to see because it would give a real sense of what the AD’s top priorities for the school’s coaches.

One of the many callers this AM suggested that the coach should have the right to speak freely about why he or she was terminated. That is, the school can’t or won’t say anything, but the coach can. The same caller – Tom from North Arlington, NJ – also suggested that perhaps coaches should be allowed to get tenure — perhaps after being on staff for 5 or 7 years. And then, maybe that tenure is re-evaluated again every 5 years after that.

Another caller pointed out that in some cases, coaches have protested their dismissal, and have occasionally won their appeal to the school board. But it’s admitted that is very uncommon.

LIFE GOES ON…

The truth is, coaching changes come and go. It’s still very much a privilege to serve as a coach; it’s not a right. Even with just a few thousand dollars in salary, being a coach is a very special appointment. All that being said, there are lots of good coaches, but sadly, there are also weak ones. It’s the AD’s job to weed out the poor ones, and sometimes, even though some of the kids on the team (and their parents) truly cherish the coach, there are many other kids on the team who feel just the opposite.

It’s up to the AD, ultimately, to make the call.

 

 

SPORTS PARENTING TIPS: Coaching Kids is a Serious Responsibility

The response to Doug Abram’s column last week regarding “coaches who apologize” generated a remarkable number of downloads and hits, and that interest continued this AM on my radio show.

The general consensus was that — especially with younger athletes (10 and under) — who look up to coaches as trustworthy adults and solid role models, and who  don’t understand yet that the real world may be unfair, that coaches who make promises to their players (such as equal playing time in games) need to step up and apologize to those kids if such promises aren’t carried through.

The callers this AM quickly made it clear that as kids reach HS age, the expectation that one’s coach would apologize for such oversights not only don’t happen, but that the kids really don’t expect such apologies. By the time the youngster is 15 or 16, they have tasted enough of the real world to understand that not all promises come true. It was agreed that this isn’t fair, but again, the sense of the world being an unfair place becomes more commonplace with student-athletes.

Doug’s overall point – that coaches are indeed human and sometimes make errors in judgment just like all of us (including parents) — needs to be kept in perspective. Clearly certain behaviors and actions by coaches are not excusable in any way (e.g. bullying, or allowing bullying, or any kind of harassment, etc). But making mistakes in the heat of game competition can and probably should be forgiven, and kids and their parents need to understand that.

BE MINDFUL OF WHAT YOU PROMISE

That being said, if a coach made a promise to a player, and the coach didn’t follow through, then it’s incumbent on that coach to seek out the player after the game, and even their parents if necessary, to privately apologize for the coach’s oversight and mistake. Just to assume that the player and his parents have forgotten about the unfulfilled promise is a real mistake unto itself. It will only fester and make the relationship between the player and the coach extremely strained.

The takeaway of this conversation is this: As Doug writes: “coaching other people’s kids is serious business” and that reality is at the basis of this sports parenting column, and indeed, pretty much all sports parenting concerns. And if you’re going to take on the responsibility of coaching, you have to keep this principle as your first and most important fundamental.

The same way that parents trust their children to educators in school, you as a coach, have to develop the same kind of care and sensitivity to those kids when they play sports. To that end, do not make promises that you can’t keep, and always be aware of your words as to what kind of impact they will have. Above all, if you do make a mistake, or screw up, have the courage of character to step up and do the right thing.

If you want your athletes to do the right thing, then you have to do the right thing too.